Southern Africa: South Africa and Angola Warm up Relations in Alliance on Zimbabwe Crisis

OPINION – The balance of power in the region is shifting as a result of the long drawn out Zimbabwe negotiations. Angola is now taking a leading role alongside South Africa in the "mediation effort". This coincides with the burgeoning fortunes of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and the weakening influence of SA's President Thabo Mbeki.

The extent of Luanda’s new influence has been steadily revealed through its activities as chairman of the Southern African Development Community’s security committee, the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security (OPDS), which it has now handed over to Swaziland while South Africa has taken over the SADC presidency from Zambia.

The organ’s suddenly high profile as a political instrument came after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change had pressed at the SADC Sharm el Shaik summit for Mbeki’s jealously defended mediation effort to be diluted by more extensive African Union engagement. The OPDS ‘troika’ of Angola, Tanzania and Swaziland began adopting a high profile in parallel to Mbeki’s mediation, and in recent weeks Angola has been integrating its efforts with Mbeki’s.

Of the three in the troika, Tanzania is the only one inimical to Mugabe; Swaziland’s King Mswati has been seeking to ensure his good relations by inviting Mugabe to his birthday celebrations.

However, it has been Angola, long-time ally of the Mugabe regime, that has made the running, and Dos Santos’ and Mbeki’s shared suspicion of the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai has now resulted in a warming of relations between SA and Angola.

These had been chilly for years, dating to before the time of the military interventions by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia into the DR Congo, against South African wishes. Earlier Dos Santos was convinced that SA’s then president Nelson Mandela favoured the rebel movement Unita, in a potential alliance with Zambia against his government. SA consistently favoured a political resolution to the Angolan civil war, while the ruling MPLA party wanted a military solution, and in particular favoured beheading Unita by killing Unita leader Jonas Savimbi.

Angola also resisted the steadily encroaching economic and political influence of SA in the wider region, and once peace broke out edged companies like De Beers out of its diamond sector and lent towards Portuguese and Brazilian companies for rebuilding the country’s physical infrastructure, even before the Chinese entered and then dominated the scene.

Catalyst for change

The Zimbabwe crisis has been the catalyst for a change in these relations. First, Angola is riding an economic boom and its September 5 election is anticipated to restore the credibility of African democracy in the eyes of the West. Second, Mbeki is a lame duck president, desperate for a solution in Zimbabwe and increasingly constrained by the ruling African National Congress and his arch rival Jacob Zuma, who on a March visit to Luanda proclaimed a new dispensation in diplomatic and economic relations.

Dos Santos himself seems assured and has the confidence to extend his diplomatic reach well beyond his immediate neighbours.In the past his concern has been limited to narrow security issues concerning the DRC. These remain, but he has taken an increasingly high profile in the wider African scene, particularly in Lusophone Africa. He has followed SA into the failed narco-state of Guinea-Bissau with investment and security deals.

Links with Brazil remain strong and Angola is becoming a more prominent element in Portuguese foreign policy. Access to China’s seemingly endless largesse has given him independence from the West while his stock in Western capitals has risen steadily alongside US dependence on his oil exports. Over the past month he has been given fresh promises of infrastructure investment by Chinese companies and hosted Reuben Jeffery, the US State Department’s top economic adviser, who wants to expand investment in biofuel agriculture.

He has strengthened his alliance with the DRC’s President Joseph Kabila and recently set up a permanent commission with the DRC to regulate offshore oil exploitation; an oil pipeline link with Cabinda is planned.

It is from this position of confidence and strength that Dos Santos has been pressing his interests in the resolution of the Zimbabwe issue and has found that he shares Mbeki’s concern about Tsvangirai and the loss of regional influence and control that an MDC administration would involve.

Deal at Sharm

Dos Santos called a summit of the OPDS troika on August 8 to effectively take over the negotiations. SA diplomats were quick to say that the meeting had SA’s blessing but it was in any event postponed after the rival parties in Harare agreed to go into talks.

According to the Luanda newspaper Semanario Angolense, Angolan and South African diplomats had come to an agreement during the African Union summit in Sharm El Sheik, when the Angolan delegation made it clear that it would back Mbeki’s mediation, rejecting the demand of the MDC and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, that Mbeki be replaced. It was as a consequence of the Angolan decision that the MDC then changed it position and called for the mediation team to be expanded, according to the paper.

Angola had been about to propose a two-year leadership transition after which Mugabe would step down with a number of guarantees and would then hand over power to Tsvangirai and the MDC. This was overtaken by events and SA and "the other power house, which is Angola, now share the opinion that the two sides must be left to come up with a solution to their own problem,"a South African source told Semanario Angolense. Since then Angola has kept Mbeki in the loop on its diplomatic initiatives.

Angolan diplomatic activity increased. Earlier this month Dos Santos sent Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Chicoti and Nelson Cosme, head of the Africa Section of Angola’s Foreign Ministry, to meet with SADC officials. They visited Maputo, Harare, Pretoria, and Windhoek. Foreign Affairs Minister Joao Miranda made a statement on Zimbabwe in Cape Town.

Following Mbeki’s line, Miranda also called for the lifting of EU-imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. This would remove the main negotiating weapon in Tsvangirai’s arsenal and oblige him to capitulate to Mugabe’s demands and it emphasised again Angola and SA’s common antagonism to an MDC government.

Ahead of the SADC summit in SA, the state-run Jornal de Angola said that the actions of dos Santos and Mbeki "show that an African solution can work."

Mbeki has now indicated that the ongoing talks will take place under the guidance of the troika until a deal is reached. Angola is handing over the chairmanship of the OPDS to Swaziland but remains the key element in the troika.